Turning Challenges into Opportunities in the E-Waste Crisis

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by | Apr 1, 2024

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The Global E-waste Monitor 2024 report provides a thorough overview of the urgent global issue of electronic waste (e-waste). According to the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), a record-breaking 62 billion kilograms (136.7 billion pounds) of e-waste were generated worldwide in 2022, averaging 7.8 kilograms (17.2 pounds) per person. However, only 22.3% of this e-waste was formally collected and recycled, highlighting a significant gap between e-waste generation and management.

The surge in electronic devices has necessitated the exploration of suitable disposal methods for this type of waste, laden with hazardous materials like lead, cadmium, and beryllium, posing significant risks to human health and the environment. When e-waste is deposited in landfills, these toxic substances dissolve into a sludge, seeping to the bottom and subsequently infiltrating the soil through a process known as leaching. The concern escalates as vast quantities of e-waste form sizable pools of dissolved toxins, contaminating nearby soil and water bodies, thereby jeopardizing public health.

Complexities of E-Waste Recycling

E-waste recycling is a complex process that involves manual sorting, examination of electronic devices for functional parts, de-manufacturing to remove hazardous materials, shredding, and separation of metals and non-magnetic materials. Skilled workers play a crucial role in ensuring the safe and efficient operation of the recycling process. Valuable metals are separated using magnets and mechanical processing, while non-magnetic materials are separated using water based on their relative density. Before the recycled materials are sold, a final check is conducted to extract any remaining valuable materials from the plastic components.

The complexities and costs associated with the recycling process allow for huge shares of e-waste to be handled improperly, both in high-income countries with developed e-waste management infrastructure and in lower-middle-income countries with no developed infrastructure. The UN body estimates that this rate of e-waste mismanagement leads to the annual release of approximately 127,868 lbs. of mercury and 99,208,000 lbs. of plastics containing brominated flame retardants into the environment.

According to the report, all continents lag in terms of recycling. Europe, the biggest e-waste generator, boasts the highest recycling rate of any other country. This, however, remains dangerously low, at just 42.8%.

Globally, only 42% of countries have adopted some kind of e-waste policy, regulation, or legislation, though enforcement remains “a genuine challenge globally,” mainly owing to a lack of collection and recycling targets, low awareness, and few appropriate disposal options, according to the report.

Health Hazardous

E-waste poses significant environmental and health risks due to the presence of hazardous materials such as lead, mercury, PFAS, BFR, CFC, HCFC, and persistent organic pollutants. Improper disposal of e-waste leads to contamination of landfills, affecting water supplies through leachate and polluting the land, particularly impacting communities near disposal sites. Research indicates associations between e-waste exposure and various health issues, including thyroid dysfunction, adverse birth outcomes, behavioral changes, and decreased lung function, particularly affecting children.

To mitigate these risks, companies employ strategies such as downstream recycling vendor due diligence, extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs, and internal corporate standards. Increasing consumer and government pressure for product takeback and resource recovery programs, along with regulatory actions like the European Union’s recast of the WEEE Directive, are driving companies towards sustainable practices and zero-waste goals.

Importance of Circularity

As companies address the brand and reputational risks associated with e-waste, the conversation is shifting towards the transition to a circular economy. Sustainable business practices are increasingly vital as reliance on prime materials for electronics becomes unsustainable in the long term. While technology for efficient recovery and recycling of key components is still evolving, more companies are investing in these technologies to benefit their future bottom line.

Leveraging the value from existing e-waste can save billions in material costs and significantly reduce product carbon footprints. It’s imperative for companies to view resource recovery from e-waste as a strategic business advantage in the transition to a circular economy. By closing the loop for their products, companies not only establish themselves as sustainability leaders but also stand to gain from the growing e-waste management market, The global e-waste management market size was valued at $57.8 billion in 2022, and is projected to reach $244.6 billion by 2032, growing at a CAGR of 15.7% from 2023 to 2032.

Turning Waste into Profit

Behind its environmental and health impacts, e-waste management costs the world an estimated $37 billion every year. At the same time, raw materials contained in discarded electronic devices – such as gold, copper, iron, as well as cobalt, a vital metal for the production of batteries – offer a chance for huge profits. The metals contained in the e-waste generated globally in 2022 alone – approximately 68,343,000 lbs. – were valued at $91 billion, including $19 billion in copper, $15 billion in gold, and $16 billion in iron.

This underlines the importance of increasing recycling rates globally. A 60% global recycling rate by the decade’s end would lead to economic, health, and environmental benefits more than $38 billion higher than the associated costs.

“No more than 1% of demand for essential rare earth elements is met by e-waste recycling. Simply put: Business as usual can’t continue. This new report represents an immediate call for greater investment in infrastructure development, more promotion of repair and reuse, capacity building, and measures to stop illegal e-waste shipments. And the investment would pay for itself in spades,” said UNITAR senior scientific expert and lead author Kees Baldé.

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